Personal Familiarity

I have been keeping a close eye on cultural differences from the first time I started learning about Afghanistan.  Most people would tell you that there are such huge things that set us apart as people.  Differences that include religion, language, socio-economics, politics, and more are hard to ignore.  But, seeing a small glimpse of familiarity in someone you’ve assumed is so much different than you is enough to put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.  I will be talking more about race, culture, and religion in future posts, but for now I have a story.  I’ll introduce you to Abdullah.

Abdullah is an Afghan who happens to be the cleaner in our office.  I see him almost every morning taking out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom, and doing all the normal things that cleaners do.  His English is very limited, but as you can imagine, it is far better than my Dari.  Every day when he walks past my desk he says hi and asks the same thing: “How is your family?”  It wasn’t long before I was asking him how to say things like hello, good morning, thank you, and more in Dari, and he was very excited to be teaching us small words and phrases every day.  These days, we can both say hello and ask each other how our families are in Dari.  I’m not quite at the point where I will be having conversations with Afghan generals yet, but maybe some day.

This was my first bit of personal connection with an Afghan.  We have spent so many years in Canada watching the same news stories about Afghanistan and the war here that simple every day things don’t come to mind when you meet people from here.  Abdullah is just a regular man who has to feed his family(wife and five kids), get to work on time, make sure he has groceries in the kitchen, call his mother once in a while, and live as normal a life as he can.  I’m sure he gets mad when he stubs his toe, feels good when he sneezes, and hates waking up too early from a good dream just like everyone else.  Except, his dreams are in Dari.

neutrogena shave cream

I was walking down the stairs toward my desk one day when Abdullah and a friend of his who was there both called me: “Excuse me, Sir.”  In a hurried tone, they were excited to ask me something.  The other guy  who spoke better English than Abdullah asked me, “what is this?” as he held out a tube of clearly labeled Neutrogena Shave Cream.  I’m always happy to talk to them as they’re very kind people, but I smiled a bit and laughed internally at this situation.  Both of them looking at me for an answer, Abdullah with a huge black beard and his friend with a very thin but still long enough beard to tell he has never seen a razor before, I said “It’s shaving cream” as I pointed to the label and gestured with my other hand as though I was shaving.  “For shaving,” I continued to motion with my hand as though I was passing a razor down my cheek.

With cheer, Abdullah and his friend turned to eachother and yelled “Aaaaahhhhh!”, Abdullah’s friend slapping his shoulder followed by excited words in Dari that to me could only mean “I told you so!” and “I knew it!”  Thinking to my self that these guys have no use for shave cream, I wondered who had left it in the bathroom by mistake to enthrall these guys’ curiosity.  I laughed and went to my desk, but couldn’t help but to keep this experience on my mind.  I was trying to figure out what simple everyday product like shave cream we might be unfamiliar with but is completely normal to Afghans.

That moment when I almost understood perfect Dari.  When I could naturally understand the way they laughed at each other and Abdullah’s friend teased him for a bit about the bet that they must have had about the shave cream.  This is the closest I’ve felt to having interpersonal barriers vanish between myself and these Afghans, with whom at first glance I couldn’t find much in common with.  These guys are just so, normal.

I’m really enjoying finding more common ground with them.  The language barrier is usually very strong, but it only makes other forms of communication like gestures and intonation feel more amplified.  Have you ever had a special connection with someone who at first seemed so completely different from you in every possible way?  Comment below on how race, religion, language, etc didn’t stop you from getting to know someone.

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4 thoughts on “Personal Familiarity

  1. That sounds fun Ted. As you know when I first went to Greece, I didn’t even know how to say yes or no in Greek. Life would have been pretty lonely if I couldn’t talk to anyone. It took me a good six months before I could communicate to any degree with anyone. I have to give a lot of credit to Mary, your godmother, who had the patience to have coffee with me every afternoon, and we would try to carry on a conversation just like you said with gestures and what we thought each other was saying. When we had a victory, and figured out a word, it seemed to stick like glue, and that moment is remembered. I will always remember the day i figured out what “this is yours and this is mine” meant in greek. Stressful, but fun.

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